My hovercraft is full of eels. I can give you the link to the omniglot website so you can say this not only in Khmer, but in a multitude of languages of your choice. Handy I know. I came across the website when I was checking out the correct way to say ‘cheers’ in Khmer. Our excitable cycling guide was teaching us this last night on the cruise back to Phnom Penh. He took enormous delight in getting me and my co-traveler to repeat it as much as possible, it is apparently perilously close in translation to an obscenity along the lines of ‘do you want to f&*K with me’ apparently. It seems one of the most fun things you can do with a westerner is try to trap them into making this pronunciation faux pas, and then roll around uproariously when they do. Better yet,it seems the gag does not diminish with either repetition or time. I don’t know the incorrect version of this toast, and decided not to google ‘Khmer obscenities’ on my laptop, dread to think where that might lead. I do have some residual intelligence when it comes to internet searches. I learned my lesson early on. In a former life when I was working as a researcher I was looking into careers guidance issues for minority groups and was trying to find stuff relating to experiences of LGBT groups. This led me to put ‘transgender adult guidance’ into my search engine. Never again. I honestly had no idea! I got quite a lot of sites relating to discipline issues and not very much relating to labour market trends to be honest. I have a feeling Linda Snell may have had a similarly rude awakening one year when she was researching ‘babes in the wood’ for an Ambridge pantomime, so I am not alone in my naivety! (That is a Radio 4, The Archers reference if you are sitting there blinking in incomprehension right now). So that was how the day ended(ish), in tipsy Khmer toasts and much giggling, but quite a lot of adventures led up to that point.
I woke about four in the morning just because. The room really stinks. It is a shame as the hotel has a sort of exterior glamour, but it’s pretty grim beneath the surface. I couldn’t get back to sleep so tossed and turned a bit, and then eventually went down to breakfast at 7.00 a.m.. I was first down. I was quite relieved and surprised to be offered a menu in English, though it was pretty limited. Eggs basically, with coffee. I had an omelette and a baguette and an iced coffee. A bit later my co-traveller appeared. He ordered fried eggs with a baguette and an iced coffee… and got an identical breakfast to mine so I think the menu was more for appearance than anything else. Four other guests appeared, and we were all herded together on the same table as fellow white people we are all expected to congregate like swarming bees I suppose, despite the extensive acreage of vacant tables around us. Maybe they were worried if we were separated we would be crushed by the tumble weed blowing around the restaurant area? It was fine, it was interesting to hear their stories albeit only a snapshot. They had been traveling a while and spent time in Laos and Vietnam. They were two couples, all from Australia I think, and had different ideas about what would constitute a good outing. I have no idea how they managed to agree on anything. One of the travelers was an especially sweary woman, but research suggests that means she is more honest, and she was likeable too in a direct in-your-face sort of way. This is someone who would always let you know where you stood, and that is helpful to be fair.
A car was to pick us up in the hotel foyer around 8.00, and so we gathered there at the appointed time. I got to play on the giant-sized furniture, I really couldn’t work out if the large polished couchy-looking thing was intended as a seat or a sideboard. It was very shiny though, but not Lucy-sized. I’m guessing I wasn’t really their target audience.
Our driver duly appeared only fractionally late. We were getting a bit twitchy in case he was waiting for us at the original hotel, but it was fine. He was friendly, but very little English which is fair enough this being Cambodia and all. Our bags were duly put in the back of his rather swish car and we clambered on. I nominated my companion for the fright seat as I was tired of doing all the small talk and figured sat in the back I would be free from that responsibility. So the journey itself was relatively uneventful in a death-defying, white knuckle ride sort of way. My nabbing of the back seat turned out to be a good move on my part as our driver was hell-bent on getting to Phnom Penh as fast as possible and drove furiously sounding the horn with ever greater intensity. I think being in the front seat might have been an adrenalin fix too far. Periodically as he had yet another near miss with some road user or other (pedestrian or oncoming driver it made no odds) and he would look across at us and roll his eyes in a ‘what are they doing, idiots!’ sort of way, followed by a chuckle. I found myself doing my own nervous chuckle by way or response. I didn’t want to collude with his efforts, but nor did I want to antagonise him in the circumstances. Even this death-ride though was culturally fascinating, when he felt a driver had wronged him in some way, say by driving on their side of the road in an orderly fashion when he wanted to bulldoze through and force them off the road, he’d point his finger at them directly and hold it there ‘pointedly’ how rude!
At intervals, we got a break in the rush as he stopped for a pee-break. There were lots of these, and he took ages standing by the roadside. Surely a prostate problem there. What is it with these drivers and their peeing routines? Still, gave a chance for me to normalise my breathing and settle my heart rate, so that was good. Each time he stopped the car, as he exited the driver’s door he did a noisy deep gutteral phlegm clearing thing, so he could send a nice projectile of phlegm arcing onto the road as he stepped out. He made the noise exactly as he crossed the threshold of the vehicle, as if he was waiting to be outside it to be polite. Unfortunately, it had the effect of making the interior of the car into a sort of echo chamber, so the phlegm clearing noise resonated around loudly and memorably each time. Not in a good way.
Some of the stops were by lotus flower nurseries, or water buffalo, so it was good to see some of the scenery in something other than a blur of images as your life flashed past you on the way to meet the big man with the scythe.
There were some strange sights that we did glimpse as we sped by. Was that really a ferris wheel? And the bikes pulling enormous loads of blue plastic containers, there was a whole convoy of them on the bridge as we approached Phnom Penh, very mysterious. We also ended up back at the garage forecourt that I like to call pineapple corner, though on this occasion no pineapples were purchased.
There was one very curious stop though. We passed a broken down minivan with a monk amongst the passengers waiting on the roadside as the driver struggled to fix whatever the problem was. Our guide pulled over to help I presume. I peered out of the back window to see what would happen. As I watched, the monk took not one, but two enormous wads of cash out of his little alms gathering bag, and handed them to our driver who squirreled them away. They looked like low-denomination notes, but even so, inches-thick wads of reil must add up. He got back in the car without saying anything. I wondered if maybe the monk was entrusting him to deliver this money somewhere on his behalf, but we didn’t make any other stops – apart from the pee breaks. During one of these I noticed the multitude of little red threads hanging from his steering wheel, presumably from monks’ blessings previous, to be fair, I think he needed all the blessings and good fortune he could muster to get safely to his destination the way he was driving. Weirdly though, I didn’t feel unsafe, I must be becoming desensitized to the whole Cambodia traffic experience somehow.
In any event, I was calm enough to sleep at some point. I know this, as my co-traveler reported that he had woken himself up with his own snoring at one point, but I heard nothing at all.
After about 4 hours, we were in Phnom Penh, and our driver pulled off the main drag and to a parallel road alongside the upper Mekong, which was suddenly green and calm and completely unexpected. We arrived at our destination and were greeted by our new guide. There was a bit of a wobble at this point, as he seemed to expect that we were going to do our cycling tour of the silk islands wearing our backpacks. Erm no. There was a bit of uneasy confusion. Eventually, after some phone calls, our driver took our luggage to what I think were the Adventure Cambodia offices for safe-keeping, we would be reunited with it later. I was a bit peeved. It wasn’t the fault of our driver or this latest guide. However, I am increasingly of the view that Adventure Cambodia has made a massive mark-up on the sub-contracted trips and not done the bits they were supposed to all that well. So we didn’t get the riverside hotel we were promised at Kratie, and here there was no provision for safe-keeping of our luggage. Not a massive issue in the grand scheme of things, and it was resolved, but irksome all the same. I felt a bit sorry for our driver too, we didn’t tip him, but he was landed with some extra driving and none of it was his fault though it became his problem.
Having waved goodbye to all our worldly goods, potentially for ever, we were offered lunch by a very smiley woman who made fried noodles with veg and an egg on top (I never want to eat another egg once I’m back in the UK). We had iced coffee and just sat and chatted to our guide who used to teach English, has previously had his own tuk tuk and now is a tour guide – having been given permission to do this by his commander as he works (or possibly worked) for the military. It was a bit confused. His English was really good on the whole, but then sometimes there’d be a real chasm in communication. I guess even though his is ‘fluent’ he is not a native speaker and some topics just aren’t that easy to discuss in that context.
So lunch was good. Afterwards I took advantage of the pit stop for a pee. We used the bathroom that belongs to the house, I kicked off my shoes and walked up the little ramp into the cool tiled back entrance. Unfortunately, the bathroom was about an inch deep in standing water, it was a western toilet but with ample hosing. I tried to wash my hands under a tap and inadvertently turned on the shower over my head by accident. Nobody commented on my unexpectedly soaked appearance when I emerged. Maybe that’s because I’d distracted them by nearly crushing some puppies (not a euphemism for anything) as I exited. I stepped on the ramp, but it had shifted and shot upwards like a see-saw, revealing the previously slumbering puppies underneath. They were fine. All’s well that ends well.
After lunch, we got our bikes and headed down the road a short way to the ferry terminus. We were about to embark on our cycling tour of the silk islands of Phnom Penh. I know it’s childish, but I love this bit. Hanging around by the bank, looking at the river, and with all the bored looking locals astride their bikes waiting for the ferry to appear. It was right next to a primary school, some children came and stared and then waved and shouted furious ‘hellos’ at me once they realised I could and would speak back in return. Admittedly the conversational range was rather limited, comprising just the one word of greeting exchanged and repeated often and at high volume, but what with the accompanying waves it was all very friendly in tone.
Soon enough, the ferry made its short trip back across the river, its occupants speedily disembarked and we piled on board alongside everyone else. At the other end it was like wacky races again as there was a race to get off. I did not join in, preferring rather to document the occasion. Go me not.
It was but a short few metres to our first spot. A local family on the island who weave silk. Our guide took us so we could watch the loom in action, and we got to have a go ourselves too. It seemed to me really complex, I daresay once you learn you can pick up a bit of speed, but it is still painstaking and meticulous. It takes a couple of days just to make a scarf. I hadn’t intended to buy anything at all on the island. I’m a bit ambivalent about the silk because of being vegetarian, but I don’t feel as strongly about farmed silkworms as other animals. It is also a case of being faced with the people who make these products, seeing the work that goes into them and hearing that a scarf which takes two days to make will cost $12 (but to you 11) made me feel like I wanted to support the family. Plus the work is really beautiful. Then they started opening up bedspreads and table runners and all sorts and they were so wanting to make a sale, not pushy, but clearly cash would help. In the end I succumbed and bought fours scarves as they were beautiful, they will make good presents and will pack easily. Maybe I could get them cheaper elsewhere but really so much work, they are worth the price. they wanted $44 for four scarves, I gave them $45 in the end as it seemed mean to insist on change. They were clearly delighted by this, and it opened up a new unexpected possibility.
The young man who had been interpreting for us to some extent, turned out to be the nephew of the woman who sold the scarves. We were invited to go and meet his cattle of whom he was enormously proud. They are I think milk cows, and not the usual breed you see in Cambodia. He paid $100 for them when small, but now his 3-year-old bull is worth some $5000! They looked healthy and well cared for, adorned with bells. He takes them a few steps to the river to bathe. The larger bull is strong but the smaller one is gentle and he can lead him without a nose rope. It was such a relief to see contented, cared for animals. We were also shown the little spirit house that was erected to bring health and good fortune to the place.
It was only as we were leaving that I came to fully appreciate the significance of the household shrines that are ubiquitous. I’d always thought of them as just that, a religious shrine. I hadn’t previously understood they are where ashes of ancestors are kept. So when people talk of ‘honoring their ancestors’ they are interacting with these household shrines, not (necessarily) trekking off to a cemetery somewhere. I was told this shrine holds the ashes of the woman’s grandmother. They were fine with me taking a photograph and laughed when I said that it was nice she was still there to keep an eye on them. They seemed genuine in this response, though afterwards inevitably I worried that my comment may have been culturally inappropriate or disrespectful in some way. If it was, I am satisfied that the family understood it was kindly meant. They were very happy with their sales too. I was too. Despite Lucy-angst about inherently problematic purchase of silk. It’s hard being me.
So then, off again on our bikes. The road surface here was smooth tarmac, and with the shady paths and little traffic cycling was a breeze. My monkey bum was quite up to the task in hand (though top tip for guide, maybe not point out that I’ll be fine because I’ve got a fat butt not a skinny one next time, however well-meant). It is astonishing to me that this clean and tranquil place is just a short hop from the heaving streets of Phnom Penh. We pootled about, taking in a temple (newly rebuilt after being flattened by the Khmer Rouge – I nearly put Moulin Rouge there by accident, that would be a rather different tale…). The statues of animals represent the signs of the zodiac. We learned that our guide is a monkey and he is married to a cow. I asked if he asked the monks if his and his wife-to-be’s birthdates were compatible before marriage. ‘of course not‘ he guffawed, I thought for a moment I’d insulted him by implying he was not modern and so believed in such traditions, but nope, I’d got that wrong again, he clarified… ‘our parents did‘. Oh. So that’s cleaed up that misunderstanding then. I’m a snake. Good. I like snakes.
The island explorations involved a bridge crossing to another island. There were many scarecrows outside houses. We were told that is what they were, but they didn’t look like they were particularly strategically placed to be honest, and I wonder what self-respecting birds would be deterred by apparently drunkenly slumbering people, but maybe Cambodian birds are different from British ones. Creative creations though.
There was one moment of terror. A puppy ran directly into the path of an oncoming vehicle. Its mother shot out and snatched it causing a pained yelp – I couldn’t work out quite what had happened whether it was yelping because it was caught in the wheels of the moto, or if it was shock at its mother’s intervention. I think the latter. It was apparently unscathed. Our guide pointed out things of interest as we passed. ‘goat’, ‘coconut’, some things we could maybe have worked out for ourselves, but he was attentive, looking back frequently which was a pleasant change from our cycling guide before, who, whilst I liked a lot, was not good at the keeping an eye on where we were duty. We pulled off the road at one point to look more closely at some rice fields. Whilst we were stopped, an opportunistic local woman turned up on a moto. She chatted to our guide, then reappeared with some scarves she just happened to have about her. This was awkward, as I was feeling pressurised to buy, but then she pulled out a scarf in teal – which was the one colour I had requested at the first stop but wasn’t available. We were back to it seemed churlish not to, the work seemed to me to be of the same quality as the others, and she was a little cheaper $10 so I succumbed, she was so delighted I was glad I have. I guess it’s yet another reminder of how much cash is needed here. Buying from locals is the only way to get it directly into the pockets of those who make things. Our guide also bought a cotton scarf for his wife. Laughter was shared and photos snapped. Part of the purchasing deal I think. In an adjacent field in one direction a man was painstakingly harvesting rice by hand. In another field was a horse. I’ve seen hardly any here. They don’t seem to me to be a practical animal to have in Cambodia. Our guide said it was also a working animal, but not as valuable as a cow. I don’t really get why you’d have a horse, they would surely be hard to look after in this climate. This one looked in reasonable condition though.
Then there was the temple where there were dragon boats. The primary school area we went through where, unusually the children were not in uniform. They should be, but here our guide explained, there is not discipline, and rural people do not have the money to buy uniforms. We had another ferry crossing (I have no idea which islands we were hopping to and from, though our guide did explain, I think I’d need to look at a map to work it out properly).
From here, we went on to look at more weaving a silkworm farm which was also a larger scale production operation. It was all quite low tech. Wooden constructions for winding the thread, and looms, though wood and metal here, still all woven by hand. We were shown the cocoons, a photo of the life-cycle and some raw silk. Our guide was most apologetic that the person who can explain it all wasn’t around, but it wasn’t really necessary. We could have bought more things but were spared this too. Phew.
Just the other side of the silk centre, was our boat. Hilariously, we had a whole cruise boat just to ourselves. Once I’d got over the bizarre feeling of being some sort of celebrity, it was pretty good. We went up top and had a salad and grilled vegetable kebabs with Angkor beer and conversation. Our cheery guide joined us, and the cruise was a perfect way to conclude not just today, but the whole trip.
We had great views of the city skyline, and a pretty OK sunset (though weirdly it looks better in the shots than it did in reality – by the way, the condensation in my camera seems to have cleared now, thank you for asking, so I no longer need to delegate photo-documenting duties, which is a big relief!) Our guide gave snippets of information. He pointed out the many boats were muslim people live, having had to flee persecution elsewhere (though I’m not sure where) they took up residence on boats as the only space available. He also explained that currently property on the islands is cheap compared to elsewhere in Phnom Penh. If we want to buy property he would do that for us, we could sell again and make a huge profit. One day there will be a bridge to the islands, rather than a ferry, and then it will be game over for that tranquil spot. After a couple of beers our guide became extremely jolly and tactile and to be honest, it was a hoot. A bizarre hoot, but a hoot nevertheless. Here are some atmospheric shots. See what I did with the flag and the sunset there? Classy eh, and not at all contrived.
After 90 minutes or so, we ended up at the riverside area of PHnom Penh. Our guide also has his own tuk tuk. It was red and shiny. We clambered the bank to hop in our ride, and he drove us back through the nighttime bustle of Phnom Penh and deposited me at my apartment near the russian market, before continuing on his way to drop off his new best friend too. I’d left him in charge of tipping duties. My own purse having been wiped out on silk island. Note to self, must reimburse promptly. I do not like to go to sleep on a debt.
It was weird being back in my flat. It’s been quite an experience the last few days. Crammed with images and memories that I’ve tried to lock down. I know with hindsight, an intrepid independent traveller could have done the whole thing much more cheaply, but I doubt I’d have found it out for myself. It is hard to pick a single memory from such an epic trip, but I think I’ll go with the image of floating through the flooded forests of the Mekong and feeling small but also being in a previously unknown wonderland and not wanting to be anywhere else in the world at that moment in time, only there. To be present, and to be amazed.